the Roman world and ours

So why am I reading about — I’m gonna coin a phrase here — the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? It started as part of my work on Auden.

I first learned about Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture from reading Auden’s review of it, published in The New Republic in 1944. Auden began that review by saying that in the years since the book appeared (it was first published in 1940) “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of its importance to the understanding not only of the epoch with which it is concerned, but also of our own, has has increased with each rereading.” I thought: Well, now, that’s rather remarkable. I figured it was a book I had better read too.

Auden concludes his review with these words:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

That metaphor — “spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” — is brilliantly suggestive. (And Auden knew all about benzedrine.)

More than twenty years later, in a long essay on the fall of Rome that was never published for reasons Edward Mendelson explains here, Auden wrote:

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neoplatonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats … instead of mortification of the flash, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered about television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheater, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

And then the comically dyspeptic conclusion: “I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (For those interested, the unpublished essay may be found in this collection.)

Clearly for Auden, the story Cochrane tells was one that had lasting relevance. Elements of Cochrane’s narrative turn up, in much more complex form than in the late-career bleat just quoted, for decades in Auden’s poetry: “The Fall of Rome,” “Memorial for the City,” “Under Sirius,” “Secondary Epic,” and many other poems bear Cochrane’s mark. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m now reading Christianity and Classical Culture for the fourth time, and it really is impossible for me also not to see the Roman world as a distant mirror of our own. How can I read this passage about the rise of Julius Caesar and not think of Donald Trump?

In the light of these ancient concepts, Ceasar emerges as a figure at once fascinating and dangerous. For the spirit thus depicted is one of sublime egotism; in which the libido dominandi asserts itself to the exclusion of all possible alternatives and crushes every obstacle in its path. We have spoken of Caesar as a divisive force. That, indeed, he was: as Cato had put it, “he was the only one of the revolutionaries to undertake, cold-sober, the subversion of the republic”; … A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?

And how can I read about this extension of the Emperor’s powers and not reflect on the recent hypertrophy of the executive branch of American government?

The powers and duties assigned to the emperor were broad and comprehensive. They were, moreover, rapidly enlarged as functions traditionally attached to republican magistracies were transferred one after another to the new executive, and executive action invaded fields which, under the former system, had been consecrated to senatorial or popular control. Finally, by virtue of specific provisions, the substance of which is indicated in the maxim princeps legibus solutus, the emperor was freed from constitutional limitations which might have paralyzed his freedom of action; while his personal protection was assured through the grant of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) as well as by the sanctions of the Lex Maiestatis. The prerogative was thus built up by a series of concessions, made by the competent authority of senate and people, no single one of which was in theory unrepublican.

But the more I read Cochrane, the more I suspect that we may not be talking about mere mirroring, mere analogies. Last year, when I read and reviewed Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, I was struck by Siedentop’s tracing of certain of our core ideas about selfhood to legal disputes that arose in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire and its immediate aftermath. And this led me in turn to think about an ideas that Mikhail Bakhtin meditated on ceaselessly near the end of his life: great time. David Shepherd provides a thorough account of this idea here, but in short Bakhtin is trying to think about cultural developments that persist over centuries and even millennia, even when they have passed altogether from conscious awareness. Thus this staggering passage from one of his late notebooks:

The mutual understanding of centuries and millennia, of peoples, nations, and cultures, provides a complex unity of all humanity, all human cultures (a complex unity of human culture), and a complex unity of human literature. All this is revealed only on the level of great time. Each image must be understood and evaluated on the level of great time. Analysis usually fusses about in the narrow space of small time, that is, in the space of the present day and the recent past and the imaginable — desired or frightening — future.


There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time.

If we were take Bakhtin’s idea seriously, how might that affect our thinking about the Roman Empire as something more than a “distant mirror” of our own age? To think of our age, our world, as functionally extensive of the Roman project?

I’ll take up those questions in another post.

CSL and the Menippean satire, once more

There’s probably not much point in responding to this post, with its rhetorical strategy of huffing and puffing and blowing my house down by intoning words like “nonsensical.” The best response to such stuff us almost always this.

But then there’s precedent for this, also.

So here’s the key passage, I think:

I’m not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye’s very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin’s interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis’s novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Well, see: no. It isn’t. And that’s the key point.

(By the way, I’d be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don’t understand it. He clearly hasn’t read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that’s precisely what it is, just look it up and you’ll see — doesn’t appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky’s novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon’s blog, Pooh! )

The Menippean satire is a genre that includes narrative but also includes many other things — the various “inserted genres” that Bakhtin refers to, which may be poetry, song, philosophical disputation, almost anything. And in some cases, an overarching narrative that contains very different narrative genres within, as, to take an example especially important to Lewis, when Apuleius puts the tragic myth of Cupid and Psyche in the middle of the often farcical and picaresque Satyricon.

So, to anyone passingly familiar with the genre, its marks are not just on That Hideous Strength but on much of Lewis’s fiction: the songs and debates interspersed in the narrative of The Pilgrim’s Regress; the debates — yes, again with the debates — in Perelandra, topped off by an extended theological lecture; the curious combination of satire and dream-vision in The Great Divorce; and so on. And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim’s Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney’s Arcadia.

Lewis taught and wrote about all of these works, and if you read what he had to say about them, you’ll see that he understands that modern readers of them are likely to grow frustrated and impatient. Why? Because we live in the Age of the Novel, in which Henry James’s emphasis on “organic form” has long been sovereign (though coming under increasingly frequent challenge in recent decades). The average reader expects a story to be just that, a story, and tends to be puzzled when songs turn up or lectures or disputations go on for too long. Example: it’s amazing how agitated readers can become by the songs in The Lord of the Rings — though in that case Tolkien may be the victim of his own skill at keeping a story moving: his readers don’t want to pause. Or don’t think they do. (But I digress.)

Which leads me back to the chief point of my earlier post, which is that if we’re going to have a proper appreciation of what Lewis was up to in his fiction, we do well to realize what his models were, and how many of them involved the mixing-and-matching of genre that we see best exemplified by the Menippean satire. Sometimes Lewis’s stories seem to lose impetus or focus because he’s not the best storyteller in the world; but sometimes he’s not at that moment trying to tell a story: he’s pausing in the narrative to complicate and deepen its picture in varying ways.

I think this has almost everything to do with Frye’s comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.” One of Lewis’s most consistent purposes as a writer was to diagnose the diseases of the intellect that arise when the intellect is cut off from its proper and healthy connection to the “chest,” as he puts it in The Abolition of Man: the seat of moral discernment and judgment. Other great modern practitioners of the Menippean form seem to believe the same: I think especially of Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Walker Percy in the twentieth. The generic multiplicity and intellectual daring of the Menippean satire are, I think, under-exploited resources, especially for the Christian thinker.

the true meaning of Mimesis

Let me just be blunt: this Arthur Krystal essay on Erich Auerbach and Mimesis is disappointingly superficial and offers no substantive insights into Auerbach or his great masterpiece.

There are two major points to keep in mind if you want to understand the real significance of Auerbach.

First, as David Damrosch has noted in the best essay I’ve ever read about Auerbach, Mimesis is an assertion, in the face of the Nazi demolition of culture, of the enormous humanistic, and humane, and simply human, value of philology. Damrosch:

Begun in exile in 1942 and completed in April 1945 (the very month of Hitler’s death), Mimesis stands as an affirmation of the scholar’s ability to rise above every obstacle that adverse historical circumstances can present. Or, to put it differently: Auerbach responds to the loss of his homeland and the collapse of his scholarly world through the recreation of European culture, both in the evocation of texts from across the tradition and by the display of humanistic scholarship at its best, with analyses at once judicious and loving, objective and deeply personal.

Philology is for Auerbach (as it was in different ways for Nietzsche, Tolkien, and A. E. Housman) the humanistic discipline par excellence, the intellectual nexus where deep historical learning and the mastery of multiple languages converge with refined taste and sensibility. It is everything Nazism is not. It is the last bastion of the Republic of Letters, where neither nationality nor ethnicity mean anything, only a passion for learning and a love of the beautiful.

That is the first point. The second is this: Mimesis is a document of hope, hope grounded in what Mikhail Bakhtin called “great time.” Great time concerns history as it unfolds over, not decades, not even centuries, but millennia. Bakhtin believed there are meanings implicit in, say, Athenian tragedy that will only be discovered in the distant future. As he wrote in a notebook near the end of his life,

There is neither a first nor last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and reinvigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.

This is very much the implicit argument of Mimesis: in his brilliant chapter on the Gospel narratives, for instance, Auerbach shows how those stories upend the classical model of stylistic decorum — a high style for high things, a low style for low things — in ways that would not bear ripe literary fruit for nearly eighteen hundred years.

So even if the Nazis were winning as Auerbach wrote — in his Istanbul exile — they would not win forever. They would be unable to eradicate the great Western culture that Auerbach had devoted his life to; it would return, it would find new life, its deepest and richest meanings would eventually have their homecoming festival. In its hopefulness Mimesis is a passionate act of defiance, the defiance of the truly cultured in the face of culture’s powerful defilers.

That’s what Mimesis is all about, and that’s why it’s one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.

prosaics of the digital life

In the best book yet written on my favorite twentieth-century thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson describe the influence of Tolstoy on Bakhtin, especially Tolstoy’s emphasis on the cumulative effect of tiny decisions and thoughts on a person’s whole life. Here’s a key passage:

Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace have both been troubled by the impossibility of grounding an ethical theory, and therefore of knowing for sure what is right and wrong. On the one hand, absolutist approaches not only proved inadequate to particular situations but also contradicted each other. On the other hand, relativism absurdly denied the meaningfulness of the question and led to a paralyzing indifference. After oscillating between absolutes and absences, they eventually recognize that their mistake lay in presuming that morality is a matter of applying rules and that ethics is a field of systematic knowledge. Both discover that they can make correct moral decisions without a general philosophy. Instead of a system, they come to rely on a moral wisdom derived from living rightly moment to moment and attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case.

I think we could say that “attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case” more or less is, or at the very least is an absolute precondition of, “living rightly moment to moment.” Ethical action requires such mindfulness, a point that was also essential to the thought of Simone Weil, for whom attentiveness (as she called it) was the touchstone of ethical, intellectual, and spiritual action alike.

We might also connect such mindfulness with my recent reflections on the problem of adherence: the failure to adhere to one’s determinations is at least in part a failure to be fully mindful about what one is doing.

It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts. (Only after rightly noting the immediate ones can we begin to grasp the more distant and extended ones.)

That is, we need more detailed descriptive accounts of How We Live Now — novelistic accounts, or what Bakhtin would call prosaic accounts. We need a prosaics of the digital life.